RICHMOND, VA., — Barack Obama, thrown on the defensive by his own running mate, staged a high- profile appearance with a team of silver-haired advisors Wednesday to assert his readiness for any foreign crisis that might erupt if he becomes president.
"Yes, we are going to face a number of threats and tests and challenges," the Democratic nominee told reporters. Obama blamed that prospect on "a bad set of policies" pursued by President Bush, which he said have produced "unresolved wars" in Iraq and Afghanistan and a slumping world economy.
"That's why it's going to be important for us, I think, to move with resolve in a new direction," Obama said after a closed-door session with his national security brain trust at a hotel in downtown Richmond, Va.
The question of judgment and experience -- especially on national defense and foreign policy matters -- has hung over Obama throughout the campaign, starting in the primaries. Lately, however, there have been signs that voters have grown increasingly comfortable with the idea of the Illinois senator sitting in the Oval Office.
In a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll published Wednesday, 48% of those surveyed said they would have "a great deal" or "quite a bit" of confidence in Obama as commander in chief. That figure was up from 39% in August and, significantly, was just two points below that of Republican rival John McCain.
But Obama's running mate, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, gave Republicans an opening to resurrect the stature issue with comments he made over the weekend. Biden, who brings years of foreign policy experience to the Democratic ticket, said it was a certainty that the 47-year-old Obama, if elected, would be tested by a "generated crisis" early in his term. (Obama was greeted by an editorial cartoon in the morning paper that depicted Biden as a loose cannon shooting off his mouth.)
McCain returned to the attack at a Wednesday rally in Green, Ohio, a suburb of Akron. "We don't want a president who invites testing by the world," the Arizona senator said. "Americans are already fighting in two wars, my friends."
McCain noted that Biden had mentioned President Kennedy's handling of the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962. McCain told the crowd he "had a little personal experience with that" as a Navy pilot aboard the U.S. aircraft carrier Enterprise, dispatched to the Caribbean. "I was ready to go into combat at any minute," McCain recalled. "I know how close we came to nuclear war. And I will not be a president that needs to be tested."
Obama, holding his first extended question-and-answer session with reporters in almost a month, brushed aside Biden's comment with the sort of indulgence a parent might show a precocious child. "Look, as I said before . . . I think that Joe sometimes engages in rhetorical flourishes," Obama said. "I think that his core point was that the next administration is going to be tested, regardless of who it is."
As Obama spoke, 15 of his defense and foreign policy advisors stood arrayed behind him, like members of a cabinet in exile. Many were pillars of Washington's military and foreign policy establishment, including former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn, former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and Dennis Ross, a Middle East advisor to three presidents. On the lectern was a placard reading: "Judgment to Lead."
Obama repeated the central planks of his foreign policy, starting with "a responsible end to the war in Iraq." He called for rebuilding foreign alliances weakened over the last few years, more troops to fight the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan and a coordinated global effort to address the world economic crisis.
Obama denied, in response to a question, that the meeting was an attempt to tidy up after his running mate. Biden, who was campaigning in Colorado, participated in the closed-door meeting by telephone.
"It'd be pretty hard to gather this group in two days," said Obama, who described the session as a long-planned chance "to check in" after several weeks focused on the economic crisis.
In Cincinnati on Wednesday, McCain -- with running mate Sarah Palin by his side -- drew the largest and most enthusiastic crowd he had seen in many days, as several thousand chanting, cheering supporters crammed into a hangar at the airport.
Both McCain and Palin again hailed Samuel Wurzelbacher, aka Joe the Plumber, the now-storied Ohio tradesman who challenged Obama last week over his tax policy. But Wurzelbacher has yet to show up at any of McCain's rallies in the state, as aides had hoped.
Both steered clear of personal attacks on Obama, wary of recent polls showing that voters blame them more than the Democratic nominee for the harsh nature of the campaign. Instead, they hammered on Obama's "spread the wealth around" statement regarding his tax plan.
"It is not mean-spirited; it is not negative campaigning to call someone out on their tax plans," Palin said.
Obama dismissed suggestions by McCain and Palin that his plan to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans and cut them for the less well-off amounted to socialism.
When presidential candidate George W. Bush eight years ago proposed lowering taxes on the highest income earners, Obama noted, it was his Republican rival from Arizona -- McCain -- who objected. "Was he a socialist back in 2000 when he opposed the Bush tax cuts?" Obama asked.